A Silent Death by Peter May

I have adored many of Peter May’s books, especially his Lewis trilogy where his descriptions of place and character are utterly transportative. This novel, A Silent Death, is similar in that the primary characters – the taciturn and blunt-to-a-fault, Scottish cop, John McKenzie and Spanish police officer, Cristina – are totally believable and wholly developed people for whom you root. Likewise, the wonderful Spanish setting is easy to imagine – the heat, the architecture, the rolling hills and coastline are realistically drawn. 

It is in this setting that McKenzie, a man whose marriage has disintegrated and who has just quit his former job to move into a new one, is brought back to work early to escort a British criminal expatriate from Spain. Fluent in a few languages and well-educated, McKenzie doesn’t suffer fools nor win many friends, but it’s his skills that see him deployed in what he thinks is a job that is basically beneath his considerable talents. But when he arrives in Spain to find his prisoner has escaped and has not only committed a string of murders but threatened death to many more, he understands what he thought would be an easy task is a hell of a lot more complicated. Add to that cultural difference and personality clashes, and the stage is set for an intense search and a race to prevent more murders. 

In many ways, the plot takes second place to the characters and their personal journeys. This doesn’t make it weak or uninteresting – it is strong and keeps you riveted. But it does make it a novel about the way people behave in a crisis or interact in normal and extreme situations and how their actions and choices define them (thinking about that, it seems so pertinent for what the world is going through now as Covid-19 has us in its grip. How we behave when the chips are down is what defines us as humans. It’s easy, after all, to be fabulous when things go well). Both McKenzie and Cristina and the people around them, particularly Cristina’s deaf and blind aunt, are extraordinary in their very ordinariness and this makes them eminently relatable. We care about them, their relationships, and what the outcome of the crisis in which they’re unwittingly embroiled will be.

An excellent read.

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Book Review: Aftermath, Peter Robinson

A friend of mine has long been recommending Peter Robinson’s DCI Banks novels and for some inexplicable reason, I resisted reading them until I stumbled upon an episode of the TV series and thoroughly enjoyed it. After that, I picked up Aftermath and was unable to put it down. About halfway through, I became aware that this novel was in fact the prequel to the one episode of the TV series I’d watched and I knew who the murderer was. Such is the strength of the gruesome yet believable tale of sexual, physical and psychological abuse and its aftermath – how people cope differently with the horrors that life can throw at them and how they identify as either victims or survivors and what behaviors they adopt to cope – that knowing the killer didn’t detract from the tale at all. On the contrary, it added a particular frisson.

The novel opens with a dark and simply awful prologue. You just know as a reader that the understated cruelty and fear aroused in those brief pages is going to explode into the body of the tale… And it does. Skip ahead a decade and to a housing area known as The Hill. Two constables are called to attend a domestic dispute and arrive with reluctance, never expecting that opening the front door of the residence will unleash a rabid and terrible history and too many skeletons – quite literally. Told from the point of view of a female probationary copper, the scene moves quickly into full scale action and tragedy. I was left breathless and appalled. Cut to the investigation and DCI Banks, replete with his unravelling love life, appears to solve this case which is quickly linked to a rapist and suspected murderer dubbed The Chameleon who has been around for a number of years. Drawn into the shocking crimes that are uncovered are residents, friends, family, the media and even the policewoman who made the initial discovery – only instead of being hailed a hero, she is placed under investigation herself. From the outset, along with Banks and his team, you’re questioning who are the victims? Who are the perpetrators? And is it always so clear cut?

This is a violent tale and isn’t for the faint-hearted, but it’s also a fascinating portrayal of violence, sex and gender with sympathetic and monstrous portraits of specific individuals being drawn, offering contrasting and fascinating insights into the cycle of child, sexual and domestic abuse – victims, perpetrators and those who purport to help, support, report and even prevent it happening being offered and held up to close scrutiny. Robinson is brutal at times and gentle at others, but the story is harrowing and yet so well-written you’re drawn into it despite yourself.

I have subsequently watched a couple more episodes of the TV series and loved them, but it’s more of Robinson’s books that I am really looking forward to getting into.

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Book Review: Believing the Lie, Elizabeth George

I would like to file a Missing Person’s Report. Name: Inspector Thomas Lynley, 8th Earl of  Asherton. Description: Approximately six feet tall, blond hair, dark brown eyes, oozes class, intellect and emotional intelligence and an uncanny ability to read people. Inspires loyalty, desire and trust in equal measure from friends, colleagues and strangers.

For the last three Elizabeth George novels, at least, this Inspector, whom we know and love – the dedicated friend and partner of Sargeant Barbara Havers has absented himself. No, that’s not exactly right either – he’s there, but it’s as if someone else has possessed his body and mind and I want him back! The front cover announces his return – I’m afraid the evidence that this is the case is scarce.

OK. Maybe I’m being unfair, but in the latest Lynley novel, Believing the Lie, George seems to have gone even further post-Helen’s death in re-inventing the grieving widower to a point there’s not much of the old boy left. In a sense, the fact he doesn’t appear until chapter three of this book, well after the main narrative is established (sans Tommy), functions as an analogy for the minor part he plays in this current mystery. In fact, Lynley is practically redundant.

Months have now passed since Helen died and Lynley is embroiled in a steamy affair with his alcoholic and neurotic boss, Superintendent Ardery. Quite apart from the fact that I never understood the attraction he feels for his unreasonable and demanding superior, when Lynley is sent to Cumbria by Hillier as a personal favour in order to investigate the accidental death of a friend’s nephew, he’s told to keep it secret. And he does. Not knowing why or where her lover has gone, and with him refusing to breach confidence, Ardery’s insecurities and unprofessional behaviour come to the fore making her more irritating and consequently Tommy’s attraction and efforts to placate her less plausible.

Taking his friends, Simon and Deborah St James with him, Lynley stumbles into a family full of secrets, lies and betrayals that have little to do with the reason he was brought there in the first place. But when Deborah and a reporter from the London tabloid, The Source, join forces to uncover the mystery of the Fairclough family, you know tragedy is just around the corner. Even if it takes almost six-eighths of the book to arrive.

As usual in George books, the writing is sublime. All the other characters are beautifully and, for the most part, believably drawn. Just as she did in What Came Before He Shot Her, George doesn’t steer away from the brutal reality of many young people’s lives and the choices they make and this story is no exception. Scenes are painted realistically – to the point you can smell the fresh air, hear the crunch of gravel underfoot, and smell the Pop Tart Havers is forever cramming down her throat.

For a novel that roughly sits in the crime genre, however, the main crime here, for me, is the absence of Lynley. As with the other books she’s written of late, the main character fades into the background and secondary characters dominate. Again, this might be all right for some, and the story is interesting, but this is a Lynley book and he simply doesn’t step up and wrest the tale or arrest the reader in ways that he used to. In fact, there is something listless and annoying about Lynley that there never used to be. Sure, he’s grieving for Helen, but that doesn’t mean he suddenly has to become all wishy-washy and turn into something he’s not. I can’t explain it better than that except a Lynley mystery this book wasn’t – and nor was it really a crime novel of the sort we’ve come to expect from George.

But, it was fascinating study of sexuality, familial ties and the psychology of a family unravelling. The climax was more anti than explosive as it’s not difficult to solve the puzzle George has tried to construct well before it’s revealed. That Lynley has a minor role to play in any of the action is at odds with his well-established character as well and is a bit of a let down for fans.

The book finishes with two endings (one of which will come as a relief to some) that set the scene for the next book – one that may yet relegate Lynley to the role of support character again. I sincerely hope not. I hope the Inspector is found, along with his mojo, because the series, as well-written and structured as it is, simply isn’t the same with this watery substitute.

Bring back Inspector Lynley – please!

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Book Review: Silent Fear, Katherine Howell.

Katherine Howell’s latest novel in the Ella Marconi series, Silent Fear is utterly gripping, atmospheric and unputdownable.

 Opening on a sultry Sydney day close to Christmas, the kind where skin sticks to leather and flies adhere to skin, paramedic Holly is summoned, along with her partner, to what appears to be a collapse at a nearby football ground. Only, when she arrives, the young victim hasn’t fainted from heatstroke as first suspected but been shot in the head. Discovering that her estranged brother is not only a witness, but a friend of the deceased, Holly senses that her carefully ordered world is about to fall about. So does detective Ella Marconi who, on arrival at the scene with her distracted partner Murray, recognises that what she’s now investigating is a professional hit with all the sinister connotations that evokes. The deeper Ella digs into this case, the more those involved are not who or what they seem and the truth proves to be more elusive than the killer.

Howell has this wonderful ability to create mood and place. As you read, you’re there in Sydney, sweltering in the heat, longing for the traffic to move again, for the wind to blow across your fevered brow. The plash of raindrops, the relief provided by cool drinks, coughing air-conditioners and the distant sounds of water is visceral. The evasions, lies and egos of the various characters that Ella (and Holly) endures, just adds to the sense of oppression and the simmering tensions between those who should be allies. The plot is so tightly woven, clutching you by the neck and dragging you into the ominous motivations of the seemingly innocent and certainly desperate. Each scene builds on the last until the climax explodes.

Characters are superbly drawn. You invest heavily in the central characters and anxiety runs high as their intentions are questioned and their hard-earned lives challenged. As usual, Ella is a believable, strong and reliable character that drives the narrative with her ethical approach to not only detective work, but people as well. Holly is a complex, deep woman who having lost everything once, stands to do so again. Alas, redemption and moral fortitude don’t always prevent tragedy from unfolding. Howell does not flinch from making the hard calls in that regard either, remaining faithful to the narrative and creating a story that is impossible to tear yourself away from. I lost three nights’ good sleep reading this book and it’s been worth every heavy-lidded day and yawn since. What a writer! What a book!

Can’t wait for the next one…

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Book Review: 206 Bones by Kathy Reichs

I had Kathy Reichs’ 206 Bones sitting on my Kindle for ages before, being on holidays, and enjoying fast-paced books and doing a bit of a catch-up, I decided to read it. It’s been a while since I indulged in a Reichs and, frankly, it may be again. It’s not that I didn’t enjoy this story about Tempe Brennan and her fraught relationship with Ryan as she tries to solve various murders (mainly two cold cases), I did. But how many times can Tempe have people wanting to sabotage her career – or worse, hurt her? According to this series, many times. I think Brennan and Scarpetta are two of the most hated women in fiction if the record of attempts on their lives are anything to go by! I would suggest they leave North America and go and live in the UK, but they’d probably end up in fictional Midsomer or with posts at Oxford University and we all know what happens in those places!

These kind of ruminations aside, 206 Bones (the number in the human body) is told in flashbacks as Brennan wakes after clearly being kidnapped and assaulted or the other way around. As we follow Brennan’s uncanny recall of the events leading up to her waking buried alive, we are again shown her brilliance, her desirability and her prickliness (which should, one would think, counteract the latter: apparently not). I felt this story was a bit too didactic and self-conscious in its deliberate attempt to pack scientific information into the narrative. While there is a (subtle) plot reason for all the anthropological accuracies, at times it also detracts from the tale by slowing it down. I also found the novel a little repetitive in parts. Nonetheless, it was a very good read for the holidays and I am glad I saved it till then. 3 and a half stars out of five.

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